“Five generals and 45 field officers” held in Charleston: Sam Jones employs a human shield

Ever since the  late days of August 1863, Charleston was “under the guns” in the true since of the expression.  The bombardment of the city ceased after the Swamp Angel burst on August 23, and the Federals concentrated on finishing the work on Morris Island.  But the Federals resumed the bombardment that fall, with the occasional incendiary shell, even dropping shells into the city on Christmas Eve of 1863.  The bombardment continued, sometimes increased to serve a point, through the winter and spring of 1863.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, of course, had lodged protests to no avail.  And he had pursued designs to counter the Federal bombardment, by his own incendiary shells, also to no avail.  Now Major-General Sam Jones had decided to pursue a different course.  On June 13, 1864, he sent over this message, addressed to Major-General John G. Foster, under a flag of truce:

Five generals and 45 field officers of the U.S. Army, all of them prisoners of war, have been sent to this city for safekeeping. They have been turned over to Brigadier-General Ripley, commanding the First Military District of this department, who will see that they are provided with commodious quarters in a part of the city occupied by non-combatants, the majority of whom are women and children. It is proper, however, that I should inform you that it is a part of the city which has been for many months exposed day and night to the fire of your guns.

Among the five generals was Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, who’d served prominently on Morris Island the year before, led operations in Florida the during the winter, and was captured in the Wilderness on May 6.  Sort of a plot twist in his life, you think?

On this day (June 16) in 1864, Foster responded to Jones’ message.  After acknowledging the content of the message, Foster proceeded to lay out the justification, and legalities, of the continued bombardment of Charleston:

Many months since Major-General Gillmore, U.S. Army, notified General Beauregard, then commanding at Charleston, that the city would be bombarded. This notice was given that non-combatants might be removed and thus women and children be spared from harm. General Beauregard, in a communication to General Gillmore, dated August 22, 1863, informed him that the non-combatant population of Charleston would be removed with all possible celerity That women and children have been since retained by you in a part of the city which has been for many months exposed to fire is a matter decided by your own sense of humanity. I must, however, protest against your action in thus placing defenseless prisoners of war in a position exposed to constant bombardment. It is an indefensible act of cruelty, and can be designed only to prevent the continuance of our fire upon Charleston. That city is a depot for military supplies. It contains not merely arsenals but also foundries and factories for the manufacture of munitions of war. In its ship-yards several armed iron-clads have already been completed, while others are still upon the stocks in course of construction. Its wharves and the banks of the rivers on both sides of the city are lined with batteries. To destroy these means of continuing the war is therefore our object and duty. You seek to defeat this effort, not by means known to honorable warfare, but by placing unarmed and helpless prisoners under our fire.

Concluding this message, Foster outlined his response to Jones’ human shields:

I have forwarded your communication to the President, with the request that he will place in my custody an equal number of prisoners of the like grades, to be kept by me in positions exposed to the fire of your guns so long as you continue the course stated in your communication.

Another chapter in the siege of Charleston was about to open.  And due up – another lesson in “hard war.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 132 and 134.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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